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Time to drop the puck, eh?

February 12, 2010 |  6:27 pm

While the NHL plays its final games before the Olympic break, the women's Olympic hockey tournament will start Saturday with Sweden facing Switzerland and defending champion Canada playing Slovakia.

That second game will mark the Slovaks' first appearance in the women's Olympic tournament, and if they lose by fewer than 10 goals it will be considered a moral victory.

Slovakia is ranked 11th in the world and upset Germany and Kazakhstan to become one of the eight teams that qualified for the Games. The team's hopes of competing respectably rest on the performance of goaltender Zuzana Tomcikova, who played high school hockey in Canada and is currently a sophomore at Bemidji State. Slovakia has another Canadian connection: forward Natalie Babonyova was born in Whitby, Canada, and attended Yale -- where she was known as Natalie Babony.

Canada is the top-seeded team here, even though the U.S. surpassed Canada in the world rankings after the seedings were determined. Although most of the women's games will be played at the University of British Columbia's Thunderbird Arena, the Canada-Slovakia game will be played at Canada Hockey Place -- the temporary name of GM Place, home of the Vancouver Canucks -- to accommodate more Canadian fans.

Four Canadian players -- Hayley Wickenheiser, Becky Kellar, Jennifer Botterill and Jayna Hefford -- have competed in the previous three Olympic tournaments, and each is vying for her third gold medal after winning in 2002 and 2006. The first women's Olympic tournament, at Nagano in 1998, was won by the U.S.

The U.S. women, incidentally, start play Sunday against Canada.

-- Helene Elliott